Crispin Smith is an associate at a Washington-based national security law group, focusing on Iraqi security, human rights, and law of armed conflict issues. He is a cofounder of the Militia Spotlight platform.
Michael Knights is the Jill and Jay Bernstein Fellow of The Washington Institute, specializing in the military and security affairs of Iraq, Iran, and the Persian Gulf states. He is a co-founder of the Militia Spotlight platform, which offers in-depth analysis of developments related to the Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria.
The first and best-known of the facade groups that Iran-backed militias use to conceal their involvement in operations, Ashab al-Kahf has a particularly strong connection to AAH and, more recently, HaN.
Name: Ashab al-Kahf (AK) (Companions of the Cave). (This profile was last updated on April 26, 2023.)
Type of movement: Facade group. Kinetic military operations. Specialization in domestic (Iraq-focused) counter-U.S. operations.
History and objectives:
AK is the oldest of the current militia facade groups, first appearing in 2019 and remaining continually active ever since. Among Iraqis, it is one of the best-known facade groups, and its name is sometimes used as shorthand for new militia groups. An April 2023 interview with a self-described AK member suggests the group may have been active since 2017 but was constrained from attacking U.S. forces due to the ongoing major combat operations against the Islamic State, in which the United States was a partner.
AK claims responsibility for attacks carried out by fasail (armed groups). It has claimed improvised explosive device attacks on convoys since March 2020 and at least two rocket attacks: one on the U.S. embassy (November 17, 2020) and one against Turkish forces (February 15, 2021).
The group primarily communicates through branded statements published online, which are then quickly reposted across the militia networks.
In late 2020, AK seemed to lean towards AAH (and away from KH) during a period when the muqawama (resistance) was internally feuding:
On December 25, 2020, AK joined the fierce media campaign to release an imprisoned AAH operator, issuing statements confirming its readiness to take to the streets if so ordered by the AAH leadership. This supports other indications that in its early days, AK was affiliated with AAH too. At the time, KH and its channels were less supportive of the prisoner.
In December 2020 and early January 2021, affiliated media accounts issued thinly veiled criticisms of KH's militia strategy. This rift seemed to close around January 6.
AK changed its logo to an image closer in style to other muqawama groups in early 2021. AK took over from Qasem al-Jabbarin as the primary claimant of convoy attacks in October 2021.
On August 1, 2022, AK blamed intra-Shia tensions on "the U.S. embassy and British embassy and other NATO countries" and threatened that "all of their embassies and bases will be targeted."
In 2023, AK sought to emphasize its status as the last major facade group operating against U.S. forces inside Iraqi territory. In an April 2023 interview, AK pointed to its anti-U.S. "occupation" focus and argued that it was the first group to undertake such attacks since 2017.
Chain of command:
The preponderance of evidence indicates that AK is an Iran-backed Sadrist splinter group with fraternal ties to Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba (HaN). In the initial phase of AK's development, social media accounts associated with AAH appeared to be particularly closely related to AK.
Militia Spotlight assesses that in late 2021, AK became more closely aligned with HaN leader Akram Kaabi. This is based on:
Kaabi's endorsement of AK (alongside other facade groups) in a December 2021 televised speech. The AK flag was one of several shown behind Kaabi.
Heavy promotion of AK by HaN-affiliated social media accounts such as the Jihad Brothers Team.
The content of AK’s statements.
Claims that AK convoy attacks are nominally under the Iraqi Resistance Coordination Committee (al-Haya al-Tansiqiya lil-Muqawama al-Iraqiya, or Tansiqiya for short). Kaabi is increasingly recognized by muqawama media (including the largest channel, Sabereen News) as the leader of the Tansiqiya. During Quds Day commemorations on April 14, 2023, Kaabi was the only top-level militia leader to publicly speak on behalf of the Tansiqiya.
In the initial phase of AK's development, social media channels affiliated with the group announced their closeness to AAH and its secretary-general, Qais al-Khazali. In addition, "Ashab al-Kahf" was one of the first names used by the AAH network before 2010. There is no dissonance in AK having close relations with both AAH and HaN, since these groups emerged from the same Iran-backed splintering of the Sadrist movement in the mid-2000s and were initially the same group (AAH) until Kaabi formed HaN.
Sabereen News appears to post some AK claims and statements on the group's behalf.
During spring and summer 2020, before the muqawama feud later that year, AK and Usbat al-Thaireen appeared to have a close and complementary relationship as the two primary facade groups claiming responsibility for attacks on the coalition while disseminating muqawama propaganda.
AK operates its own media channels on Telegram and Twitter.
AK may directly control roadside bombing and rocket crews drawn from HaN networks, or it may strictly be a media operation.